My Old School – In the Beginning

In July of 1997 I moved out of my husband’s house. He had been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia about three weeks prior to this, and while I had offered to stay and help him through the illness despite our marriage being over, he’d insisted that I go. This was just as well because it meant our kids had another home to go to when their dad’s white cell count was so low that they couldn’t safely be with him. Douglas died in early May of the following year, and I was left with the daunting prospect of raising two young children on my own. I was working part-time  in the library of a provincial correctional centre, so I wasn’t earning nearly enough to support my family and had no idea what I would do with my kids during school breaks.

I had always wanted to be a teacher, so I applied to several faculties of education and was accepted by two. York University is in Toronto, and the cost of renting an apartment near the campus was simply beyond my reach. The University of Ottawa, on the other hand, had lots of affordable student housing, and I liked the idea of moving to a new city. I lived in the small village of Millbrook at the time, and although it was nice to have friends around to support me after Douglas’s death, I didn’t like the number of complete strangers who were offering me condolences. I had no doubt they were well intentioned, but their words indicated that I was the latest topic of the local rumour mill, so I wanted to get away until my notoriety died down.

Needless to say, I had great trepidation about moving to Ottawa with my children. I didn’t know anyone in the city and had not been a full-time student for over ten years. Everything was new and a little scary, and on top of that one of the associate teachers I worked under during my practicum was an absolute nightmare. She complained to my faculty liaison when I was away for one day with the flu, and once when I stayed late to help set up an activity for the next day’s class, she berated me when I asked to leave at 3:45 because my kids’ daycare closed at 4:00. “What will happen if you arrive late?” she asked, “Will your kids shrivel up and blow away?” What a heartless cow.

I moved back to Millbrook after that arduous year and sent out resumes and cover letters to numerous principals in the area in mid August. Luckily, a position in a grade 4/5 class had just opened up at Dr. Ross Tilley Public School in Bowmanville, and I was called in for an interview. I spent about 15 minutes talking to the principal and vice principal about my work and educational experiences and abilities. The principal thew a key to me at the end of this brief discussion and said, “You’ve got the job. Room 206 is at the far end of the upstairs hall on the left. Good luck.” That was it. No orientation, no introductions to other staff members, and no discussion about kids or parents or school culture. Just “good luck.” At that moment, I felt I would really need it.

The early days of teaching are simultaneously tremendously exciting and absolutely terrifying. I had no clear idea of what to do or how to begin, but the other teachers in the school were incredibly generous and supportive. Two colleagues in the junior division ran off extra copies of their first week activities for me, and several others assured me I would be fine and that they had my back. September was a frenetic blur, but knew at least that I had landed in a good professional environment with an excellent team. I will always be grateful to my colleagues at Tilley, and my experience at the school was so seminal that I feel compelled to write about it. Many of the people involved are still teaching, and as usual I haven’t asked anyone for permission to write about them, so I will be using pseudonyms from here on out.

I knew virtually nothing about Bowmanville when I began my tenure at Tilley, but it became clear in short order that it was a working class town. Many of the parents manned the line at GM in Oshawa, so a rather roughshod blue-collar ethos pervaded the school community. I had a boy in my class who regularly brought very suspect lunches to school, like two cans of cola and a whack of Oreos, or 3 Sunny D’s with a container of Dunkaroos. I raised my concerns to his father in our December interview, and he unabashedly responded “Yeah, I work a lot so my kids are basically raising themselves.” He clearly had no problem with the arrangement, nor with the appalling nutritional make-up of his son’s lunches, so we simply moved on from there.

We had parents who were so verbally abusive to staff members that they were banned from the school. Not just in practice, but by law. I had a colleague, Sharon, who taught the son of a woman who was not allowed on school property. One gym period another kid bumped into this boy, and he promptly responded with a swift punch the face. When Sharon called home to explain why her son was being suspended, the mother responded “Why would you suspend him for that? He was only doing what I tell him to do.” The parents were so tough that one time several of them had a dust-up in the back of the gym during our Christmas concert! If you can’t get along with your neighbours at that time of year and in that sort of environment, then you never can. Nor, I would argue, do you want to.

One year I had an extremely bright but clearly very unhappy boy in my class. When parent interview time came around, colleagues who’d previously taught him warned me to have administration on alert in case something bad went down. Evidently the dad was unstable, and it was prudent to ensure there was someone in the office to help defuse the situation if he became testy. I was very tense when the boy came into the room at the appointed time along with his younger brother, nervous mom, and enormous dad. 

Things were going fairly well until I made a less than glowing comment about the student and his dad exploded. He charged up from his chair and came aggressively towards me. His wife and I both immediately stood in response, and she placed herself in front of me before he could bridge the distance between us. He had his hand raised as if to strike, and his wife stood rigidly in front of me with her arms outstretched in a protective gesture. The dad lowered his hand in response to his wife’s posture as I simultaneously raised both of mine until they were in front of my shoulders with the palms facing forward. “This interview is over,” I said as calmly as possible, “You can either leave now or I’ll call the office and have someone escort you out.” The dad said ,“All right, I’m going,” and then he loudly and derisively spat the word “teacher” at me before turning towards the door. The mother told her boys it was time to go. I had completely forgotten that they were in the room, but the looks on their faces reminded me that they had witnessed the whole sordid interaction. I now understood that they lived with this aggression every day, and had likely seen even worse manifestations of it in the privacy of their home. My attitude and behaviour towards that boy softened with this sad realization. 

The student population in the school was, unsurprisingly, fairly violent and explosive as well. We had a group of unusually thuggish boys in grade 8 that same year, and they often acted up during assemblies. One time a few of them were being particularly rude and disruptive. A grade 5 teacher named Gus finally had enough of their foolishness and went over to deal with the situation. It was clear the boys were not going to stop, so Gus told them they needed to follow him to the office. They all stood up, but one of them continued to resist leaving. Gus simply put his hand on the boy’s shoulder to escort him out of the room, and the boy punched him in the face. Gus raised his hand as if to strike back, a perfectly natural response to being hit, but then, remembering who and where he was, he took a deep breath and put his hand down. I had seen the whole thing, so I went in to describe the incident to the vice principal. I told him exactly what had happened, at the end of which he asked, “Was the hit with an open or closed fist?” I remember wondering what the hell that had to do with anything, but calmly responded that the fist was closed. Surely the only salient point here was that a student had hit a teacher, not how the blow had been delivered!

I had an autistic student named Lizzie my first year at Tilley. A very kind girl in my class, Bethany, befriended Lizzie without being asked. Bethany sat with her, ate with her, and played with her at every recess. Lizzie could be unpredictable and sometimes violent, and one day she attacked Bethany for absolutely no reason. They were calmly eating lunch when Lizzie suddenly launched herself at Bethany and bit her deep enough on the cheek that the wound required stitches and would certainly leave a scar. Bethany and Lizzie’s mothers came in for a meeting a few days after the incident and Bethany’s mother, who turned out to be as kind as her daughter, fully accepted the other’s apology. Lizzie’s mom stayed afterwards to talk to me privately. She had tears in her eyes as she described how loving and affectionate her daughter had been as a toddler, but how at 3 she had slowly withdrawn into her own autistic world. I had nothing but sympathy for this poor women, and could only guess at how horrible it must have been to lose Lizzie in that way. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of living with your child but never being able to hug them or have a two-way conversation, or to have to abandon all hope of seeing them live a normal life and grow into independent adults.

I worked for about 90% of the day that first year, and the other 10% was covered by the vice principal, Mark. He taught them social studies, and I handled the rest of the curriculum. I came in a bit early one day during the second week of school and went straight up to class. The kids were still writing down notes from the board as I walked in, so I quietly sat behind my desk while they finished their work. My eyes eventually wandered up to the board and I was shocked by what I saw because Mark’s notes were riddled with grammar and spelling errors. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation, but eventually screwed up the courage to speak to him about it in his office at the end of the day. Mark laughed at my trepidation and freely admitted that he had always been terrible at writing, to which I responded that I was pretty bad at math. He then went on to suggest we make a a deal – if I’d correct his blackboard notes every morning, he’d help me stay on top of the math curriculum. And so it went for the rest of the school year.

I had the worst class of my career in my second year at Tilley. There were three boys all named Mike in the room, and two of them were enormous problems. Mike 1 was the boy who brought in the terrible lunches and whose dad had washed his hands of parenting. Mike 1 definitely had a good heart, but he was clearly neglected by his father and was therefore determined in the classroom to get the attention he was denied at home. He constantly interrupted lessons and discussions, and goaded other kids just for the sake of eliciting a reaction. Even negative attention is better than none at all. One time when I had finally had enough of his outrageous behaviour I told him to go to the office. He climbed up on top of his desk and began stamping his feet in defiance of my directive. It was at least 10 minutes before anyone could come from the office to escort him out, and Mike 1 kept up his loud, raucous refusal the entire time.

Mike 2 was a different story entirely. I’m pretty sure he was a sociopath. He clearly delighted in making others feel bad, never showed remorse, and did everything in his power to bother and intimidate those around him. That year the kids in my class had math workbooks. I would teach a new concept in class, and then they would complete as much of the related assignment as possible during the math period and take whatever wasn’t completed with them as homework. The kids were working quietly at their desks one day as I marked the previous day’s probability assignment. I was pulled up short by something in Mike 2’s workbook. He had written that it was possible that he would blow up the school and probable that he would kill Ms. Monis. I looked up from the book to see Mike 2 leering at me with a diabolical smile on his face, clearly revelling in my shocked reaction. I took the book down to the vice principal at recess so he could call the mom, and when I returned to class I found a huge slash in the fabric on the back of my chair. I suspected this was Mike 2’s handiwork as well so immediately went back down to the office to report the incident. Mark was sitting behind his desk with a stunned look on his face. When he’d told Mike 2’s mom what her son had written she’d responded by saying, “I don’t see why he’s being suspended – he would never actually do it.” She wasn’t shocked by, nor did she apologize for, her son’s behaviour – she simply made excuses for it. Just one of many occasions during my career when the old adage “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” proved to be true.

The rest of my class that year other than these two rabble rousers was just lovely, as are, in my experience, the vast majority of children. I encouraged the kids to bring in board games whenever we had class holiday parties, and at Christmas Brian, a very studious and hardworking lad, brought in the home version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He was extremely keen on playing me, so I suggested he get anyone else who was interested to be on his team in an attempt to even up the odds a little. There ended up being eight kids on his side, with Brian acting as their captain. At one point they were stymied by a question concerning the capital of Greece, so Brian decided to use the “call a friend” lifeline. He curled the three middle fingers of his right hand and then brought it up beside his head to stand in for a phone receiver. He then said “Brring. Brring. Hello. Ms. Monis?” The other kids all gasped at his temerity, but I just laughed, mimed picking up my own phone, and simply said “Athens.” Smart kid!

Students are first taught long division in grade 4, and I had a girl in my class, Maggie, who simply couldn’t get it. I explained it to her in as many ways as I possibly could, then called on my colleagues for advice, then asked the kids around her to help, but even after all this she still didn’t understand how it worked. Maggie was so frustrated after several days of trying that she burst into tears and ran out into the hall. I followed her from the room with her math workbook in hand and sat down next to her on the floor. She cried a bit longer as I stroked her back and said soothing words, and once she had calmed down I began building her up by saying I knew that if she persevered she could get this. Maggie was a very good gymnast, so I asked her if she had been able to perform a back flip on her first go. “No,” she said, “it was a disaster.” I then said, “Well, I’ve seen you do back flips in your routine and they are flawless. How did that happen?” She finally looked up at me and said, “I just practiced until I got it right.” I nodded and opened up her math book to the long division page, slowly solving two problems while she intently watched every step. Maggie turned to me after I’d finished and, I swear, I saw her figure the process out right in front of my eyes. The penny finally dropped. She eagerly took the book and pencil from my hands and solved the next equation perfectly on her own. 

This is just one example of many from my years of teaching wherein I experienced the extreme pleasure of knowing that I had taught a student something important. Some of these lessons were purely academic, but an equal number related to skills like empathy, discernment, and cooperation. Seeing a child awaken to new knowledge (or, to use common parlance, to witness them having an “ah ha” moment) is about the most satisfying and gratifying experience an educator can have. I remember and treasure each and every one I had when I look back over my teaching career.

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